Thursday, 28 May 2015

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Novel review (Unread 010)

I love Star Trek for a lot of difference reasons. One of the main reasons is that it can provide fans with a wide variety of stories within the franchise’s fictional universe. This is true of a lot of long lasting and ever evolving franchises but Star Trek is still one of my favourites because it does it well and even when it completely misses the mark, there is a lot left to enjoy. That’s true of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and it’s even truer of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Novel (that title!).

I didn’t really like Star Trek: The Motion Picture the first time I saw it. I’ve always thought it was interesting – how can it not be considering all the characters begin in a different situation than what we’re used to seeing, the uniforms are different, everything feels fresh and new – but I didn’t think it was good. It didn’t compare to the good Star Trek movies. The more I rewatched it, the more my opinion changed. I started to like it because the more I watched it the easier it was for me to notice the thematic elements at play (on full display but difficult to notice due to the slow pacing of the film), the surprisingly poignant character arcs (mostly Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, again, difficult to notice because they’re portrayed differently than we’re used to seeing and that’s the whole point), just how long those damn lingering shots of spaceships and the Intruder are (way, way too long). It also became apparent that the movie’s pacing actually supports the character development which also happens to be the heart of the movie. Having a slower pace allowed for more character reaction, anticipation, and boiling over of emotions, all of which fuel character interaction and allow for the thematic development of the relationships between humanoid to humanoid and human to unknown sentient beings.

I’ll leave it at that because this is a review of the novel, not the movie, but I wanted to provide a bit of context as to my enjoyment of The Motion Picture so that you can properly understand how I feel it compares to the novelization. In short, The Motion Picture is a good Star Trek movie but it’s near the bottom of that list because of the problems it has that make repeated viewings tiresome. I definitively wouldn’t categorize it as a bad Star Trek movie anymore.

Before you even read the first page, The Novel, is a neat book and different from all other Star Trek novels because it’s written by Gene Roddenberry himself. Really! It’s right there on the cover. A lot of people dispute this and believe the novel was ghost written by someone else. The usual culprit tends to be Alan Dean Foster. There are a few reasons for this. For starters, he’s credited for the story (though not the screenplay) of The Motion Picture. He’s also the king of novelization, having written several very popular novelizations during his prolific career. Some other people tend to think that because he wrote the novelization for Star Wars it somehow proves Foster also wrote the novelization for The Motion Picture. I don’t see the connection but it guess it’s . . . something? Personally, I think Roddenberry wrote it. Roddenberry is a writer, a TV writer specifically, and reading The Novel it’s pretty clear he’s not a novelist. He also tends to have some rather strange ideas about the future and the way he handles several issues of sexuality in the book reads as something Roddenberry was known for thinking up. It’s decidedly a strange book and that doesn’t really fit well with Alan Dean Foster’s style (though I’ve read very few of his books).

There is one piece of evidence that really seals the deal for me: Roddenberry’s editor, Davig G. Hartwell, believes that Roddenberry wrote it and no one else. You can see his statement in the comments section (comment 42) on Ellen Cheesemeyer’s review of the book at That’s good enough proof for me and as far as I’m concerned it puts an end to the speculation and arguments.  

Since starting Shared Universe Reviews, I’ve begun to read my fair share of novelizations. I like them because they allow you to enjoy a movie you like without actually seeing the movie. It triggers your memory and you can relive the images in your head no matter where you are. (Imagine, “watching” a Star Trek movie while reading on a camping trip!) That’ pretty great but novelizations are much more than that. Good novelizations dig deeper and provide you with a different take on a story or they can give you information which changes the context of certain events depicted in the movie. Good novelizations can proudly stand next to their cinematic counterpart. That was the case for the novelization of Star Trek:The Wrath of Khan which was superb. This novelization, however, supports The Motion Picture and ultimately elevates it to a better film. It’s a fine example of what novelizations can do and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of Star Trek, even those who aren’t partial to The Motion Picture.

The book, like the movie, suffers from a slow pace but it’s not as noticeable in the book because there is a lot of inner monologues and captivating narration that speed things along. Thankfully, there are no long-winded descriptions of the Enterprise or other vessels, but their absence highlights the problem the movie had with extended shots of spaceship models. Because of the absence of these long pauses, the book is a bit quicker. It’s more focused. This allowed me to zero in on the main elements of The Motion Picture’s story which deals primarily with characters and the idea of V’Ger which also happens to be a character. It’s definitively science fiction drama, not space opera action driven primarily by special effects (unless you’re reading the novelization in which case it has the best special effects: THE MIND).

The story feels like an introduction to this era of TOS rather than being strictly focused on the Intruder plot, which is the case for the movie. The book provides additional information as to what the characters were up to during the years between the five year mission and the beginning of the movie. It’s the kind of information that should have made it to the final movie because it provides you with a reason why beloved characters from TOS act differently than we’re used to seeing. Their behaviours is odd in the movie and the book. The book’s narration helps to smooth into that transition. 

The best part of this book is seeing how different the main trio is than their previous portrayals on the television series (TOS and TAS). They've been separated since the end of their five year mission and they're either running away from their problems or trying to recapture their former glory. Kirk is indecisive and second guesses himself. He's been unhappy as an admiral and desperately wants to regain command of the Enterprise. He acts recklessly and emotionally to get what he wants. On the other hand Spock has tried to completely eradicate his memory of his time aboard the Enterprise. Kolinhar is about the suppression of emotion. Spock fails, but the attempt has left him feeling unemotional and distant, even with his t’hy'al (a Vulcan word used for friend, brother, and/or lover – in this instance meant to represent Kirk). McCoy is more chaotic and distracted than usual because two members of his triad are acting contrary to themselves. He's trying to help them and having little success. 

The book takes time to get invested in the plot with the Intruder and that’s ok because the book is more about characters than anything else. The movie deals more with the Intruder and Kirk’s mission to stop it before it reaches Earth while the book focuses more on the characters and their relationship to each other. Both version of the story feature both elements, only in different doses. The narration of the book strengthens the story because it brings the focus back on Kirk, Spock, McCoy and other characters, rather than focusing on the mystery of V’Ger as the movie does.  I want to point out that V’Ger, in both the movie and the book, isn’t just the main concept at the centre of the story. It’s also a character, subject and player. We’re given a chapter from V’Ger’s point of view in the book and it’s really enjoyable.

The sheer size of the unknown Intruder and its subsequent exploration by the Enterprise is a delight in the book. It's tense, mysterious, and moving. I also really like the exploration of the idea that first contact with truly alien species/individual/being is a dangerous and difficult thing to do. Something as simple as scanning the another vessel or sending easily encrypted universal messages of greeting can be misconstrued as acts of aggression. It reminds us that being onboard a ship like the Enterprise has its drawbacks.

As a whole, the book is good, maybe even better than the movie, because it supports and solidifies the themes of The Motion Picture. The whole story is clarified and strengthened by proper contextualization via the book’s narration and characters’ inner monologue. The result is that the book promotes a better appreciation of the movie. It makes me wish that Roddenberry had written an original Star Trek novel. Some of his concepts and ideas are so damn weird, but others are rather glorious in their hopefulness for our future.

The book is also filled with neat and strange ideas (everything related to Kirk’s sexuality is ridiculous yet also very, very interesting), my favourite has to do with V’Ger, or, as Roddenberry spells it “Vejur”. The idea that an artificial creation can be created by biological beings (humans in this case) and sent out on an independent journey of research, eventually outperforming its creators’ intended use, acquiring impressive advanced technology (probably creating some of it, too) and become an advanced form of artificial being is just fascinating. I wish we had a story of V’Ger’s journey. The story’s conclusion that combines natural beings and artificial beings to create an evolved incorporeal sentient lifeform makes me think that mechanical beings could be considered the next step in human evolution within the context of the Star Trek franchise. The step beyond that would be the fusion of mechanical or artificial beings with biological ones. Considering Data’s creation and the development of his character throughout The Next Generation, you get a good appreciation of what Roddenberry tried to do with his novelization. It also provides an interesting through line from The Motion Picture, the revival of Star Trek, and TNG, its new presence on the small screen. It’s a nice continuation of Roddenberry's ideas on human evolution from one part of the franchise to another. 

I want to point out that V’Ger, in both the movie and the book, isn’t just the main concept at the centre of the story. It’s also a character, subject and player. We’re given a chapter from V’Ger’s point of vue in the book and it’s really enjoyable.

What’s fascinating to me about novelizations is that different mediums have different strengths and it’s interesting to see how certain stories are better suited for novels and others for film. I would argue that The Motion Picture is better as a novel because of the book’s focus on characters which are arguably better handled in the book than V’Ger is. A novel’s written word has the right tools to efficiently and skillfully provide the reader with information directly linked to characters without distracting from the rest of the story. Narration is a powerful asset to novels and that’s the primary element that gives this book a boost in terms of quality and reader satisfaction. The Motion Picture has some rather striking visuals but the length of time the camera lingers on them makes those moments feel contrived and forced. It’s not a natural amount of time to linger on something, even something as spectacular and glorious as the highly detailed model of the Enterprise. It’s a sleek looking ship and I personally don’t think it’s ever looked better, but the amount of time we spend focused on it is unnatural and has a discomforting.

It’s not just the slow camera movement and the “spaceship porn”. It’s also the pauses, and the long moments in the movie where very little seems to happen. Events do happen and actions are taken, but you don’t get a sense that you properly understand what the characters are thinking or why they’re doing what they do. The movie feels cold and distant, and that, I think, is the real reason people find it hard to enjoy this movie. The Motion Picture: The Novel lets you spend some time in the minds of several characters. It’s significantly more personal and it’s all possible because of the tools used in prose. Motivation and personality greatly contributed to my appreciation of the novelization and the movie. As such, I don’t think I can ever think of the movie separately from the book. They’re companion pieces in my mind, both supporting the other with their strengths and, by doing so, eliminating their respective weaknesses.

I wish we could have spent more time with
Bearded McCoy.

The fascinating (and often weird) narration of The Motion Picture: The Novel makes the long pauses of the movie not only tolerable, but understandable. Kirk looks uncomfortable and tense in the captain’s chair because he is uncomfortable and tense. He’s troubled by his drastic actions to regain the ship and the success of his mission will validate, at least for him, that what he did was right.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture requires that viewers invest themselves fully into the narrative in order to be rewarded by the rich thematic take on humanoid and non-humanoid relationships in the future. The problem is that the movie isn’t inviting and it’s not terribly approachable. The Novel goes a long way in rectifying that. It also helps to read the book after you’ve seen the movie because the fantastic visuals imprint themselves in the mind, probably because they linger on the screen for so long. It makes for an excellent accompaniment to the novel’s depth of character. It raises the crew’s personal and emotional struggles to the same level as the visuals and the music of the movie.

Consider it covered:
The cover of The Motion Picture: The Novel is essentially the theatrical release poster with additional text. I’ve seen a lot of fans dismiss it quickly because of the noticeable presence of a rainbow but I think it works better than most people care to admit. Kirk is on the warm side of the spectrum and it can represent his slightly more than characteristic emotional responses and self-doubt during the story. Spock is placed on the right side, with the cold colours. This highlights his usually unemotional personality, colder in this movie than his usual self on TOS, following the events of Kolinhar. Ilia’s presence at the centre of the rainbow also works well. She’s not as cold and logical as Spock and nowhere near as emotional as Kirk can be. During her brief appearance in the story (the real Ilia, not the probe that looks like her) she shows behaviour from both ends of the spectrum, logic and emotion. She shows more emotion in the book, but it is still present in the movie.

Having all three faces placed closely together, almost merging inside the rainbow, acts as a visual foreshadowing of the film and the book’s climax. Three beings, one emotional, one logical, and one that is more balanced fusing together to create a new form of sentient life. The whole thing is grounded by the Enterprise and the space background. The Enterprise also looks very good. It doesn’t feel like a Star Trek novel unless there is a spaceship on the cover. It’s a pretty great cover overall. It’s eye catching while also being thematically relevant. Personally I like the rainbow and it tickles me that there’s also a rainbow on the cover of the novelization of The Wrath of Khan.

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